A Case for GZA as One of Hip-Hop's GOATs
In this series, we'll be making the case for specific rappers to be included in "greatest of all-time" discussions. The more obvious choices (such as André 3000, Lil Wayne, Eminem, Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie, 2Pac) will be ignored in favor of artists who tend to get overlooked these days, for one reason or another. Previously, our writers have made cases for Pusha T, Ice Cube, DJ Quik, Big Boi, DMX, Ghostface Killah, Scarface, Lloyd Banks, and Three 6 Mafia. Today, we're going to bat for GZA.
Part I: Protect Ya Neck
Why do the greats seem to dwindle so severely? Their silence and missteps fester in the most critical minds until we avoid talking about anything but what they were, like decline is something to be embarrassed about. Don’t worry, I’m not leading into a hit-piece on the Genius (and neither am I about to argue that he’s had a flawless career), I just want to start by establishing that there’s something powerful in constructing singular cultural moments. So let’s say it outright: the greats dwindle, and this truth doesn’t need to be embarrassing. Next, I’ll propose that it’s amazing in its own way that an artist can create such inimitable perfection, heights that escape even their future self.
GZA is on par with Nas in his capacity to deliver urgent, immediate depictions of experience, real or imagined. He does this through lush lyricism. Through narrative. GZA is a rapper who creates whole worlds. That’s something we can’t even talk about without bringing up the Wu-Tang Clan (a GOAT group if there ever was one). Collectively they channeled the boundless creative energy of New York’s underground; individually, GZA showed that creative spirit married to serious, intellectual aspirations.
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was one of those rare moments when pop music’s periphery displaces the center. It is a dense, unpolished masterpiece that should have stayed underground but couldn’t be contained. We got hints of this with Wu Tang’s breakout single, “Protect Ya Neck”. It is aggressive and dizzying, classic New York grit, while simultaneously esoteric and challenging. Who were these people talking about “Shaolin style” and “the Wu”? And who was this so-called genius that closed them out by dissing major record labels?
Those who weren’t indoctrinated in the ways of ninja movies or Staten Island's underground quickly learned. The Wu-Tang Clan introduced imagination and playacts to hip-hop without compromising the authenticity of their message. Think about every rapper thereafter who invoked the image of Scarface, or consider the whole mafioso subgenre that sprung up (reincarnated) in the late nineties. All of this is in part attributable to something as ridiculous-sounding as pretending to be ninjas and samurai. And then there’s the actual music. Harsh, technical lyricism in an era dominated by California’s sun-kissed nonchalance. RZA’s ninja movies and jazz samples and low-fi recordings. The nine MC personalities, and the harmony that arises from that chaos.
Being part of the best hip-hop group ever doesn’t itself merit inclusion on the longlist of individual GOATs. It puts him in the discussion for sure, but it’s not until you parse through GZA’s contributions to the Clan (as best we can), that it becomes apparent how much of a driver he was behind their sound and style, and how much individual praise he deserves as a result.
It didn’t take critics or fans— even on their seminal debut, the other Wu-Tang members took a moment to acknowledge GZA’s greatness. The interlude-skit following “Can It Be All So Simple” has them variously describing GZA as a “Genius” MC and “the backbone of the whole shit”. If their group were Voltron, he would be the head (Method Man’s analogy, not mine). Let’s not forget, GZA was one of only two members to have released a solo album before Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). And his rhymes exude the maturity and thoughtfulness of a spiritual guru in one of those old ninja movies they loved so much. They weren’t wrong to call him the head— on the debut he plays the Clan’s wise, cerebral observer, offering commentary on religion, politics, and corporate control in music.
Returning to their single, “Protect Your Neck”, it’s impossible to ignore the significance of RZA’s arrangement— that he mixed the song so that GZA would close it out. The world’s first introduction to the Clan ends on a verse that reads like a declaration of war (and wasn’t it?) by the group’s strongest, smartest rapper. It was a tacit acknowledgment of his superiority, it said: if any one member speaks for us, here is that man.
GZA is one of two members given a track entirely to himself on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and even then it feels like the song cuts off with so much left unsaid. “Clan In Da Front” is a powerhouse that weaves jagged beats and clanking piano keys with the communal turn-up of a fish fry. It’s some good, old-fashioned ‘our squad is better than you and your’s’ dissing— but here’s the kicker, GZA’s repping the whole Wu-Tang Clan, no backup. In yet another acknowledgment of his leadership. GZA is entrusted to hold up their entire style on his own.
The last few decades have seen a Wu-Tang in slow collapse, with in-fighting and weird publicity moves (like their Martin Shkreli-owned album) creating more buzz than their music. Through it all, GZA has remained as central to their sound as RZA’s production. And in the rare moments that they’ve achieved heights comparable to their debut, his fingerprints haven’t been difficult to lift from their work.
Part II: Cold World
I could leave the argument to rest, satisfied with unknotting GZA’s position as the brain beneath Wu-Tang’s ferocity, and the lyrical lead behind one of hip-hop’s greatest albums. But he didn’t leave it to rest there. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was followed by a ruthless takeover. In less than five years, the Clan members delivered a series of solo albums, of which GZA’s is undeniably the best.
Listen to Liquid Swords and you’ll experience the high-water mark of the Wu-Tang Era. While his bandmates explored albums that recast the Wu aesthetic in palettes colored by their individual personalities— for example, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s grime and weirdness— GZA’s was a sharp, clean distillation of everything Wu. That observation isn’t meant to suggest a lack of creativity, rather, it’s meant to point out (again) how much of the original classics were molded by his ambitions. Chess, ninja movies, vicious New York winters— with Liquid Swords, GZA sharpened these motifs to a razor edge.
GZA’s New York is a distorted, surreal reflection of the actual one.Formed of richly detailed scenes of street hustling and Five-Percenter-inspired parables, the ambiance creeps around you like a fever dream in the dead of winter. Consider one of the more underrated songs on the album: “Swordsman”. Above an ominous chime (likely sampled from a ninja film) GZA spits a complex philosophical inquisition. He’s talking about slave ships and religion, dense topics on their own, except it’s not what he’s saying that’s so fascinating, but how he draws the connections. He doesn’t fall back on conventional morality or Christian theology— he threw those out in the first verse. Instead, he situates these issues in a larger cosmic network, something I don’t pretend to fully understand. This is the recurring challenge and beauty of Liquid Swords, and much of GZA’s discography. That we get glimpses of ideas that exist so much as the product of a single-minded genius. You walk away feeling like you got something, but not all of it— so you’ll come back and study his wisdom some more.
Liquid Swords isn’t so heavy on philosophy that it is inaccessible. Without qualification, it’s still some dope-ass music. Songs like “Shadowboxin’” and “Cold World” deliver that rare gift of a song that both slaps and makes you think. All across this album, GZA builds complex internal rhymes and extended metaphors that are as impressive as the stories and beats. Every listen is another puzzle. There’s something to be said for this type of weirdness. This album, more than Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) gave hip-hop permission to be odd and experimental. I find it hard to imagine Madvillainy, Kanye West, or anything Indigo in a world without GZA.
His genius has traveled beyond hip-hop as well, to some of the most prestigious universities in the country to lecture on music and to discuss quantum physics with professors. RZA hoped that Liquid Swords would bolster Wu-Tang’s popularity among college students, and he saw it as a rejoinder to Cuban Linx and it’s overdone gangster cliches. It was a prescient observation—GZA is responsible for expanding the audience and intellectual esteem of hip-hop, to the point that the most esteemed publications discussing it (e.g., Pitchfork, The Fader) treat it with serious critical contemplation (sometimes to the point of alienating its readers and over theorization).
I opened by commenting on GZA’s depiction of immediacy and experience. I think that’s the ultimate appeal to his brand of GOAT. He isn’t what he used to be, because he built a monument to a moment and a vision. Thin, infinitesimally sharp— it is the personal offered without pretense. So how could he ever repeat it? How can he take us back into the warped world of 1995 New York, when no one knew where the music or culture would go? His early projects didn’t chase anything down, they were a snapshot of a cold world, so frozen and set that anyone can come along, twenty years later, and find the same story.